Fighting To Serve

By Lieutenant Commander Taj D. King, Medical Service Corps, U.S. Navy

I remember vividly my grandfather’s story of what inspired him to join the Navy. On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. After hearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy” address, my grandfather, like many Americans, was galvanized and volunteered his services to the nation. He not only would see combat in the South Pacific and help construct forward operating bases such as those in Hollandia, Papua New Guinea, but also would endure abject racial discrimination. For example, his unit was not allowed to socialize with white enlisted units, and they had to ride in segregated train cars on the long journey from Portsmouth, Virginia, to Shoemaker, California.

My grandfather’s experience with racial inequality did not discourage him from serving his country in a time of need. His actions and those of other African Americans of his generation ultimately opened doors for future minorities, women, and eventually lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals to serve honorably in the Navy.

Opening Doors  

During World War II, African Americans were allowed to be commissioned as officers, albeit against great opposition from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. The attitudes of such top Navy leaders created environments that were conducive to hostilities toward African Americans. Indeed, the first black sailors selected for officers’ school at Great Lakes Training Station would endure significant discrimination and had to prove they were just as capable as—or even more capable than—their white counterparts. 1

In his oral history with the U.S. Naval Institute, James E. Hair, one of “The Golden Thirteen,” explained, “We had to do a lot of things in order to get where we got. But the way I look at it is that all of our achievements were great in view of the situation at that time, because Jim Crow ran the Navy at that time.”

The men were kept segregated, and their training was just half the normal period, but they came together and taught each other. Their initial examination scores were so high the Navy ordered that they be retested. The results were even higher. 2

Graham Martin, who held a master’s degree from Howard University, was another of the Golden Thirteen. While at Great Lakes, he initially was not allowed to play on the all-white football team. When the Navy kept losing, however, the head coach went to the black camp to recruit players, including Martin. The team would go on to win nine games and endure only two losses after Great Lakes allowed the black officer candidates to play. 

Others of these 13 officers told of not being welcome in the Officer’s Club or having sailors cross the street to avoid saluting. They were not accorded a graduation ceremony. Nevertheless, these men worked hard, were successful in whatever assignments they were given, and became role models for future African American sailors. They paved the way for other men and women who would make significant contributions to the Navy: Michelle Howard, the first black female admiral and Vice Chief of Naval Operations; Samuel Lee Gravely Jr., the first black vice admiral; and Carl Brashear, the first black Navy master diver, among others.

Building Today’s Diverse Fighting Team

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or affirmative action, the military was working to ensure the rights of minorities. What started with the honorable service of many black sailors was formalized in 1948 with President Harry S. Truman’s executive order mandating the “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” 

In 1969, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird issued the first Human Goals Charter, which established the Department of Defense’s goal to “provide everyone in the military the opportunity to rise to as high a level of responsibility as possible, based only on individual talent and diligence.” 3 As a result, more doors were opened to African Americans, women, and other minorities to pursue careers as commissioned officers. Many African Americans who sought to join the Navy as officers, myself included, benefited tremendously from this initiative.  

I was commissioned as a lieutenant through the Navy’s direct commissioning program. This program was designed to allow prior enlisted or civilians with professional degrees in medicine, nursing, the natural and physical sciences, engineering, mathematics, religion, the humanities, or sociology to join the Navy as staff officers. After completing Officer Development School in Newport, Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to manage and lead teams of civilian and military personnel in forensic drug-testing laboratories. This likely would not have happened in the civilian sector as it typically takes a scientist several years to become a lead or manager in the pharmaceutical industry and academia. In addition, being a member and officer of such organizations as the Medical Service Corps Officer Association has allowed me to develop friendships with people from many cultural backgrounds.

A Call to Serve

In his September 2016 message, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson stressed, “A culturally diverse team enables the U.S. Navy to build partnerships with other cultures, which should ultimately build trust and confidence. Without trust, it is impossible to win the tough fights.” 4 Individuals from diverse backgrounds bring different views and ideas to the table. By increasing the enlistment of minority sailors and commissioning of minority officers, the Navy can make itself an even stronger combat-ready organization.

1. Paul Stillwell, T he Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).  

2. Bruce Lambert, “James E. Hair, 76, Naval Officer Whose Unit Broke Color Bar, Dies,” The New York Times , 11 January 1992.

3. S. D. Hosek, P. Tiemeyer, R. M. Kilburn, D. A. Strong, S. Ducksworth, and R. Ray, Minority and Gender Differences in Officer Career Progression (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001).

4. “One Navy Team,” Chief of Naval Operations Message, 27 September 2016.

Lieutenant Commander King is a Navy biochemist serving at the Naval Medical Research Unit in Dayton, Ohio. He holds a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry from Florida State University and a Ph.D. in cell biology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. 



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